The recent accusation by Israeli President Shimon Perez that Syria has transferred Scud missiles to Hezbollah passed all but unnoticed by the mainstream press. Yet, if true, this could prove almost as destabilizing an event as Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon. Possessing a range of more than 400 miles and a 2,000 pound warhead, Scuds in southern Lebanon would be able to target virtually every Israeli city and major military installation with devastating effect. Syria is also known to have developed chemical warheads for its Scuds, although there is as yet no evidence of the transfer of such a weapon of mass destruction to Hezbollah.
The threat posed by the thousands of shorter-range, less powerful missiles in the hands of Hezbollah and Hamas has proved dangerous enough. Some two million Israel citizens are at risk from these weapons. In 2006, Hezbollah launched some 4,000 rockets; in 2008, Hamas fired some 3,200 rockets and mortar shells into Israel. Israel is now deploying the Iron Dome system to intercept short-range rockets. This, along with the Patriot system and several variants of the Arrow interceptors, is intended to provide basic protection against missiles of all ranges.
Scuds would radically alter the balance of military forces in the region. This new weapon would also allow Hezbollah to target all of Israel from deep within Lebanon, extending the range to which the Israelis would have to penetrate in order to attack their launch sites. The Israeli missile defenses would now face the threat of longer range missiles from a new direction, complicating its operations. With their massive warheads and the potential to carry chemical weapons, Israeli missile defenses could not afford to ignore this threat even at the risk of depleting their inventory of Arrow long-range interceptors.
Hezbollah appears to have been counting on its massive missile inventory to provide a deterrent against Israel. Its acquisition of Scud missiles may actually have made it less safe. Israel will not be able to stand on the defensive if it faces a significant threat from Scud missiles. Given the experience of the 2006 war, Israel will not be able to rely solely on its Air Force to take out the missile launch sites. This means that in the event of renewed warfare with Hezbollah, Israel will have to invade Lebanon, possibly as far as the Bekaa Valley. Such an operation is likely to trigger a conflict with Syria and possibly even Iran. One Israel source estimates that in a new war, Israel would face thousands of short-range missiles and hundred of Scuds and even-longer range missiles. Since it requires approximately two interceptors for each incoming missile, the Israeli inventory of long-range interceptors could be exhausted rapidly. The result would be a general Middle East war.
The United States needs to consider the growing regional ballistic missile threat as it plans deployment of tailored regional missile defenses for Europe and the Middle East. In particular, it needs to address the extremely short-range threat. The U.S. is only beginning to develop effective defenses against rockets, artillery shells and mortars. In addition, plans for sea and land-based deployments of Aegis ballistic missile defenses with the Standard-Missile (SM) 3 need to be scaled to the potential size of the threat, which may number in the hundreds. Current procurement rates for the SM will not be adequate to address the prospective threat. In addition, development of the advanced version of the SM may not come in time to meet the current threat. U.S. planners should look to additional options for engaging ballistic missiles such as the Air-Launched Hit-To-Kill system.
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